Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Beating dead horses, meritocracy edition

So now everyone who's anyone, left and right, paleo and neo, is against the meritocracy. Well, fine then. Me too! I'm not just against it, but I'm more and better against it than everyone else, so like me best, ok? I mean, I even discussed it before them, except for those who discussed before me, but the club has to have more than one opening, or it wouldn't be a club. So can I be admitted?

If not, then I think "being against the meritocracy" is too easy and will hold out on the median of ambivalence until compelled to one side of the road or the other. I have nothing against Helen's suggestion of professing monarchism while you're perched at Yale or Harvard (where, indeed, the main current of campus conservatism did seem to be Catholic monarchism merged with Austrian economics - a phenomenon for which I would still appreciate an explanation), except that it precisely doesn't serve as an antidote to meritocratic thinking or meritocratic doing. Everyone is already against the meritocracy, and the monarchists just allege a different evil consequence. Undergraduate monarchism is another species of looking around at your peers and concluding that their deranged, possibly Adderall-fueled productivity has caused them to grow into twisted things, all lacking some aspect of character that would conduce to your preferred image of human wholeness--compassion or (ugh) "real passion," self-direction, depth of inquiry, correct use of otium (the latter being the monarchist contribution).

But all of these ways of thinking about what's wrong imply that, whatever it is, it's them and not you. Everyone else has been deformed by the competitive machine that miraculously left you untouched. Meritocracy's bunk, sure, but you basically deserve to be where you are because you get what it's really about - (insert here: passion, self-direction, deep inquiry, otium, whatever your priority) - while everyone else is just in it for the money/status/girls. So you have real merit, and everyone else is a fraud. When actually, if you got what it was really about, you'd do what naturally follows from Helen's claim that, "Politics works best when there are many different centers of power, but meritocracy concentrates power in a single ivied pipeline": that is, you'd take your big brains and enroll them at Eastern Tennessee State.

This kind of condemnation is only too natural to college students, who are young and unsure about how they measure up because they have only seen vague indications of their own and everyone else's potential, and it never straightforwardly addresses the basic problem: that there is presently no other basis for hierarchy and distinctions of rank except "merit" (whatever we choose to make that mean) which Americans - including the monarchists - will accept. I've posted this exchange between an old aristocrat and a modern reformer from War and Peace here before, but  it conveys the real aristocratic-democratic chasm without mincing words:
"I ask you, Count--who will be heads of the departments when everybody has to pass examinations?"
"Those who pass the examinations, I suppose," replied Kochubey, crossing his legs and glancing around.
Our monarchist undergrads would not blink at this response. They get the joke because they passed the examinations. The confusion of "the old man" about how passing an examination could be related to being head of a department is incomprehensible to them, to me, to all of us except as an artifact preserved by Tolstoy, and this is why whatever image of monarchy they've painted in their imaginations is not "an alternative mental landscape in a way that is three-dimensionally vivid," but rather a contemporary society that's sublimely pious, dressed in petticoats, and resident on country estates. Whatever the benefits of gazing at such a landscape occasionally, until our monarchists embrace the image of themselves living as serfs on those same estates because their genealogies would likely assign them to it, they haven't really understood the alternative world they're trying to imagine any more than the most naive cheerleader of universal social progress. (And I'm not singling the monarchists out for any particular blame since I too experienced this failure of comprehension in a different but related way in college.) We can study the hierarchies of the Middle Ages, but we can't really justify them, not even by pretending to be eighteenth century High Church Tories from Moline, IL. Because no matter how many allowances (poor high school education!) and exemptions (legacy admit!) we might be willing to extend to the takers of the examinations, we all still know that you can't possibly be a competent department head if you can't even pass an examination. (I mean, ok, you don't have to get a perfect score, but how could you not even pass?) This is Tocqueville's democratic revolution that swept the entire world, sparing not even the most fervent historical re-enactor.

It's true that we need not go back to the 18th century to find alternatives to the meritocracy in higher ed because, as Helen points out, it's only existed for 50 years. Nonetheless, the mindset that preceded it even in America is also obscure now. Some people use the example of the "gentleman's C" at Harvard to describe the Aristotelian gentleman who doesn't strive to be expert at everything, and the undergrads become perplexed because, clearly, if you aspire to a C at Harvard, the only thing this describes is that you don't deserve to be there. So, naturally, there are hardly any C's at Harvard or anywhere like it. Similarly with our recent crop of cheaters, who complain that they are the real victims - the course was supposed to be easy, they needed an easy class for respite from the pressures of ball-throwing and poor-serving and problem set-solving, and then the prof goes and makes it hard on them without even so much as a warning. Which is all to say of course that they needed not an easy class, but an easy A, and when threatened with an equally easy B instead, they saw it as a breach of contract. They of all people would benefit from the world of the gentleman's C, the brief respite from high standards that doesn't come at the price of collapsing those standards, only they can't imagine such a thing.

And opposite the Harvard monarchists hovering over the scene, you have Phoebe's YPIS-ers: the enforcers of meritocracy from the bottom. They emphasize that whatever you are, it better be entirely self-created, or else you can't take credit for what you're passing off as merit. This of course denies the merit of everyone presently enrolled or graduated from any university, since they probably had parents who fed them as infants (privilege!), whereas the bottom-dwellers had to feed themselves from birth and so their own less apparently impressive attainments are in fact more meritorious because harder-won. So the short story: criticism of meritocracy reinforces meritocracy.

And why does this happen? Because, as I said, we have no alternative principle of selection except that the best outcomes should be reserved for the best people, and the only fair way to find out who has potential to be the best is by administering examinations. There is a kind of Aristotelian flute-logic to this: the best flutes for the best flute-players. But Aristotle makes distinctions between the kinds and purposes of knowledge that we refuse to make, and flute-playing is a distinct techne whose principle of selection is not necessarily the one we'd use to judge, say, our rulers or our scientists. He does not suggest we reserve the best flutes for the best people as though they are just blue ribbons with no purpose, not to say the best outcomes for the best people, which requires no distinctions of kind or purpose at all. That is why it makes sense that, as Helen says,
"You might suppose that young people with world-class potential would aspire to different colleges depending on whether their expertise is finance, short fiction, or figure skating. Today, all these different prodigies are being funneled to the same places." 
That's also why these criticisms of meritocracy tend to run in circles, sometimes setting up new hurdles for aspirants to clear based on an expanded faith in our ability to discern complete human excellence from application essays and resumes (as when it was no longer good enough to get many A's, so we dutifully signed up for soup kitchen shifts and cello lessons), and sometimes removing old hurdles found to be rickety (as when we decide that the SAT is no longer a reliable measure of the above-mentioned complete human excellence), but never undermining the principle of selection - the best schools, the best jobs, the best everything for the best people.

David Brooks's criticism is somewhat more promising, though it still does not undermine the justice of the principle of selection. He suggests only that those who pass the examinations don't make very good heads of departments, not because the examinations were flawed, but because the ethos of examination-taking creates a situation where positions are too insecure to permit the development of institutional loyalty. Here is where all the beneficiaries of meritocracy like Miss Self-Important start to get nervous. This criticism is better than the various quibbles with the form of the examinations because it doesn't permit back-patting self-exemption. You might believe you truly deserve your job based on whatever criterion of merit you most prefer, but it's still true that unless that job involves some kind of tenure guarantee, you stand a very good chance of losing it or leaving it in the near future, and almost no one, not even those in tenured-type positions, can pass them on to children or even be assured that the institution will exist beyond their generation. So, even if it's them, those other bad people - bankers, politicians, lawyers, etc. - who abused their power and position whom you want to blame for national problems, you can see how, to recycle Withywindle's favorite saying in a non-mass murdering context, there but for the grace of God...

Still, Brooks suggests no change in the selection principle, just a new, more robust ethos of stewardship which is supposed to grow up from what seems to be very thin soil. So, haters of the meritocracy, tell me: what is the alternative with which we will be replacing our much-maligned "merit", and if you make a good case, I may join your cause.

UPDATE: Helen responds.
UPDATE II: As do Nick and Withywindle.


Withywindle said...

You tempt me to a lengthy response. But I will try an abbreviated version.

1. I'm not ultimately taken by the school of thought that says that any beneficiary of a system is disabled in their ability to criticize that system. I suppose it isn't entirely trivial to note such ironies, but I don't see they should be given more weight than the substance of the critique.

2. Not all critiques are of meritocracy of such. One critique is of a meritocracy too devoted to to fact and not enough to value; this critique can harmonize with endorsement of, for example, the Imperial Chinese Exams (heavy on Confucianism) or the Imperial Indian Civil Service (heavy on Cicero). Another critique is Madisonian--it is not meritocracy as such, but that one particular brand of academic meritocracy is strangling all other avenues of social mobility, ending the balance-of-power between different status- and power-hierarchies.

3. I favor both critiques. My nostrums are 1) a somewhat remoralized educational system (specific content left blithely unspecified); 2) a rejiggered education system that makes a high-school education sufficient as preparation and credential for most jobs; and 3) a Jacksonian hatcheting of the government so as to reduce the number of jobs, and the prestige of the jobs, for which academic meritocracy qualify a person. (If Wall Street still wants to hire an MIT quant, I mind infinitely less than if Harvard and Yale Law School grads monopolize government.) These policies are all doubtless impossible to achieve in full, but I think they are amenable to incremental, quarter-loaf reforms that render some movement in that direction possible, if doubtless unlikely.

4. Non-mass-murdering contexts. What will they think of next?

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't think that no beneficiary of a system can legitimately criticize it in principle. I just don't see the criticisms in this instance as saying much more than, "We're using the wrong examinations to select the heads of departments. We should instead be examining them for evidence of qualities more like my own." It's not useless to have the deformities or biases of the examinations pointed out, but as I said, I don't think any of it ultimately undermines the selection principle of a meritocracy. It just gives us a growing list of things we don't test for, but could potentially test for, when we come up with a better, more "holistic" test. And this makes people even crazier, ultimately, because they're being examined for high performance in every aspect of human existence.

You might be right that merit as a selection principle is not the basic problem here, but that one specific merit pipeline - the university - is being clogged. This I take to be something like Helen's criticism about the figure skaters and opera singers and rocket scientists all coming to Yale as well. In that case, do we have a "higher ed bubble," it pops, and everything goes back to "normal"? Or is the merit-identification process necessarily some kind of centrifugal force, which always pits those at the top of all the different hierarchies against one another? In other words, speculative history: in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, we did not have the technical means by which to create a national competition for the top jobs in every power-wielding field like politics, banking, journalism, law, etc. So you could go to any college or no college at all, and still become at least a regionally important figure. But as our capacity to nationalize these hierarchies grew, the universities stepped in to streamline the centralization. Get rid of the universities in this process and something else will inevitably take their place. Or won't it? Is it enough to diminish the role of universities as status-brokers?

Your #3 is covered by Charles Murray. The problem is still the above question about whether this is an inevitable arms race that will simply find expression in other ways if you make universities degrees less requisite.

Withywindle said...

1. I don't know if something else would replace the universities as a centralized Sorting Hat for Gryffindor, but I think it's worth at least trying to bust their status-monopoly.

2. It's also worth phrasing this as "it's not a question of the Inevitable Decline of Liberty, but whether America will adopt the centralized-elite structure of the United Kingdom or France." If you think of this as variations within democratic cultures, some of the angst is removed.

Flavia said...

Re: campus conservatives being for some reason almost entirely monarchists:

Oh yes. It's true at Not-Harvard as well. I spent some time fraternizing with them and their bow-ties, straw boaters, and St. George's Day parties. And indeed, almost none of them would have been at Not-Harvard 40 years earlier, or without the benefits of meritocracy. My best theory has always been that it was a way both of rejecting their peers (as you say) and of rejecting their own pre-college existence as kids without connections and from some inglorious corner of the country. The dress-up and the safe, irrelevant political posturing allowed them access to a kind of Ivy League Swell identity they otherwise felt they didn't have access to. (If you're an ethnic white from Queens or a closeted gay kid from a working-class southern town, you can out-Ivy the legacies with your bow-ties and your collection of teapots and your extensive knowledge of Evelyn Waugh.)

I liked many of them, but it was a weird scene.

Phoebe said...

UChicago totally had this! I went to a Criterion (a UChicago undergrad publication with that aesthetic) party, and boy oh boy. One of them now has a really successful fashion blog, I think in Beijing.

If NYU has that subculture, it's very, very marginal. I've taught a whole lot of undergrads and walked by many more, and not once encountered this (unless I'm forgetting.)

(MSI, I'll get to responding to the content some point soon...)

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: Are the UK and France really comparable in this regard? Britain is more porous, more like us if we had fewer people and proportionally fewer universities. I was under the impression that France is more German, more deterministic, and more devoted to a literal examinations-based elite? I am using "examinations" broadly in this post to mean all the types of things we take into consideration in applications for meritocratic things - including literal examinations, but also personal recommendations, concerns for BS "well-roundedness", etc. We would recoil at determining life trajectories at the age of 12, so I'm not sure why this prospect should diminish our angst.

Flavia: Not-Harvard is Helen's reference point, and this corresponds to Helen's description of the pink-pantsters motives as well. Though I am curious how you got involved with this?

Phoebe: My husband wrote for the Criterion, and I don't think he ever went through such a phase (also, b/c, as a Jew, it's a bit harder to get behind Catholic monarchism). And I think now all those people have disassociated with such things - one to become an Orthodox monk (possibly lapsed), one is a socialist, one was a Supreme Court Clerk.

Post-Criterion at least, I thought neo-dandyism at Chicago existed solely in the Edmund Burke Society, which was a fringe element associated primarily with the Law School. In College Republicans, the future i-banker law-and-economics crowd dominated. Elsewhere, Straussian neocons. UChicago's soil had not been fertilized by enough blue blood to sustain the dandies. (But one of my occasional commenters, who was part of the Edmund Burke Society, may surface to dispute this.) And NYU - can you imagine more barren soil for this inclination?

Withywindle said...

I meant the centralized elite structure--Oxbridge, ENA--which are rather meritocratic, although the French perhaps more so.

Angst diminishes because Britain and France are still democracies, despite their inbred, homogenous elite. I don't care for that sort of elite, but it's less disturbing to say "we could be French!" than "we could descend into horribly horrible tyranny!" Or it is for me, anyway.

My alma mater hardly had conservatives, much less aesthetically flamboyant ones. I find the discussion of this subculture bemusing.

Phoebe said...

I also wrote for the Criterion! They recruited me by taking me to, I think, Salonica.

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: But Germany doesn't make your list of angst-diminishing prospects?

Phoebe: See, these are the institutional limits of U of C. Yale has a bespoke tailor shop (or maybe two?). And at Chicago, High Church Tories must settle for lemon-orzo soup and a gyro plate.

Flavia said...

Did my previous comment not post?

Short version: I got involved because a) I dated one of them for a time, and b) I shared their aesthetics, or at least found them congenial, while not actively being repelled by their politics (though I did make fun of them from time to time).

My ex, however, is now the most ridiculously stereotypical Brooklyn hipster dad you can imagine (and now quite liberal). I think he just likes joining a subculture with clear external signifiers.

Withywindle said...

MSI: I don't know about modern German elite selection, except that politicians plagiarize their dissertations from time to time because PhDs are prestigious there, and when that happens, Margaret Soltan mocks them.

Flavia: When you are dating someone in a bow tie and a straw boater, what do you wear to a St. George's Day party so as to be appropriately dressed? Parasol, crinolines, and long white gloves? A Gibson girl look? Or Emma Peel?

Flavia said...

Withy: ah, the St. George's Day parties (like the Agincout Party) is black-tie. As you might expect for an event at which a giant cardboard dragon gets burned to a crisp.

The bow-tie and boater look is more of an everyday thing, at least in season. But the appropriate female equivalent probably involves seersucker and pearls--boring, but true.

(But don't think I don't own at least eight pairs of dress gloves. Because I do. I also have a furrier.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: Well, the weeding out begins at about age 12, and that's the part that makes Americans (even uber-determinist Charles Murray) flip their lids. I think there is a certain level of early determination/tracking/rigidity which would be sufficiently anti-American as to merit the label tyranny, even if it's not tyranny in Germany or France. The biggest recent challenge to the German and French systems is immigration - turns out that, according to the national exams, almost no one born outside their respective country has any brains. And what is worse, they are not simply content to be relegated to no-brains jobs. This has not historically been the finding of Americans thanks to the decentralization of the elite. If we become more like France and Germany, our tests will also demonstrate this interesting fact about the correlation between brains and birthplace (that is, that brains don't survive border crossings intact). But we have so many more non-native citizens, so many more people overall, that this finding will sit even less well with us than with the Turks and North Africans. So, I don't feel so comforted by the prospect of becoming France, and certainly not Germany.

Flavia: Follies of youth. Well, I hope that it was at least fun.